The Lee Brothers (Dennis, Daniel, and David) made a name for themselves when they opened Namu in the Richmond District of San Francisco, a fancy and quaint Korean-style restaurant in the midst of ethnic spots in the residential area of the city.
Riding on their popularity, they decided to open another location focusing on grilled food and small plates in the Mission. Earlier this year, they decided to close the original Namu and focus all their attention to their latest baby, Namu Gaji, which opened a few months ago to rave reviews.
Namu Gaji anchors one end of the gourmet corridor on 18th Street populated with Bi-Rite Creamery next door, Bi-Rite Grocery Store, Delfina (and its pizzeria), and Tartine Bakery. And the kitchen, headed by Chef Dennis Lee, produces quality dishes, some brought over from his Namu menu.
I dined recently with my fried-food loving foodie friend Sandy of the delectable Foodhoe’s Foraging. Sandy has been to the original Namu and is a fan of Chef Lee’s modern interpretation of Korean ingredients.
I tease that Sandy is a deep-fried food lover because, despite my aversion to deep-fried foods, she eagerly ordered a couple of deep-fried dishes, including the gamja fries ($11) from the happy hour menu. Made with bits of short ribs mixed with French fries, this dish could easily be the Korean version of poutine.
Another fried dish was a starter of uni tempura ($12) with shiso, lemon, seasonal vegetables (squash blossoms), and ginger tsuyu. I’m a fan of uni, so I tried a fried piece that was wrapped with the shiso leaf before frying, and all I tasted was fried vegetables. The creamy uni (sea urchin) with taste of the ocean was barely noticeable, overwhelmed instead by the salty flavor of the fried veggies.
I feel Lee shines in dishes that’s focused on flavor not texture, and a good example is the richly flavored beef tongue ($20), slowly braised and then quickly grilled served on a cedar plank with a dust of spicy powder. My Mom used to make beef tongue when I was younger, and Namu Gaji’s version mirrored the deep intense beef flavor with the tender texture of the tongue that I remember.
Another winner was the dumplings ($14), filled with shiitake mushrooms in a savory dashi broth. The mushroom flavor shined through and made each dumpling satisfying and filling.
On the opposite end, a simple soba noodle salad (called the bibim, $10) was a refreshing bowl of cucumber, Napa cabbage, pinenuts, kim chee all dressed in a light vinagrette or traditional Korean soba sauce known as momil kook soo.
Some dishes were simple but not astonishing, like the octopus ($14) with peas, spring onion, fried garlic, and gochujang sauce. Or the dessert of shaved ice, which despite my warning to Sandy because I’ve eaten years of shaved ice in Hawaii, was underwhelming even though it was doctored up with black sesame brittle and fresh strawberries.
Dining at Namu Gaji is best when you’re a smart consumer. That means knowing what to order and asking your server about the portion sizes. For example, there’s a whole section called “Grill” where all the plates are $20, but the portion sizes look like tapas or appetizers. The beef tongue, even though it had fantastic flavor, was $20 for five one-inch cubes of tongue.
We ordered the asparagus with onsen egg that was also $20 and what came to the table could only fairly be described as a mini salad, with slivers of asparagus with a few strips of duck ham and one poached egg on top. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so offensive if the plate weren’t so huge, emphasizing the small portion in the center.
The dumplings and bibim salad are definitely worth their respective prices, but wade carefully into any dishes above $20.
Despite the price/portion size issue, the Lee Brothers have created an upscale Korean-style bar serving up refined dishes showcasing California’s seasonal ingredients.
Rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
Namu Gaji, 499 Dolores St. (at 18th), San Francisco. PH: 415.431.6268 Open happy hour, Tues.–Sun., 5–6 p.m.; and dinner, Tues.–Sun., 6–11 p.m. Major credit cards accepted, no reservations. namusf.com
Check out Foodhoe’s take on our dinner at Namu Gaji, including her interactive Lytro photos, at her post here.
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